Bursting the Tuition Bubble

Ann McClure's picture
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

College tuition is, as any Occupy Wall Street demonstrator will tell you, too damn high. Average fees at public universities hit $8,244 this year, according to College Board figures, and a staggering $28,500 at private schools; add on another 13 grand if you want room and board or such fripperies as textbooks. Little wonder that State University of New York chancellor Nancy Zimpher recently warned at a White House education summit that "the general public might be reaching the tipping point" in their ability to pay for college.

The common wisdom is that universities, bloated with tenured professors, are ripe for a market correction; "higher-education bubble" now has its own Wikipedia page. Yet a deeper dig into the numbers—itemized in a pair of studies by the College Board and the foundation-funded Delta Cost Project—shows that the bubble is actually a pair of unrelated phenomena: Call them the Great Harvard Chase and the State-Funding Plug Pull.

First off, things aren't quite as dismal as the scary headlines, especially at the private colleges with the most hair-raising tuition figures. (Sarah freaking Lawrence: $44,220.) That's because most tuition surveys quote only "sticker price": full tuition, without factoring in any grants or scholarships.

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